Tag: academic achievement

Disagreement over Chile’s National School Choice Program

A week ago, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published an on-line op-ed critiquing Chile’s nationwide public-and-private school choice program. In a letter to the editor, I objected to several of the op-ed’s central claims. The authors responded, and the AJC has now published the entire exchange. A follow-up is warranted, which I offer here:

Comment on the Gaete, Jones response to my critique:

Their response consists chiefly of “moving the goalposts”—changing the issue under debate rather than responding to the critique of the original point. The first claim in their original op-ed to which I objected was that “there is no clear evidence that [Chilean] students have significantly improved their performance on standardized tests.” In contradiction of this claim I cited the study “Achievement Growth” by top education economists and political scientists from Harvard and Stanford Universities. That study discovered that Chile is one of the fastest-improving nations in the world on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS—which were specifically designed to allow the observation of national trends over time. It is hard to conceive of clearer evidence that Chilean students “have significantly improved their performance”, contrary to the claim of Gaete and Jones.

Here’s Where Better Schools HAVE Scaled Up…

Earlier this summer, I released a study comparing the performance of California’s charter school networks with the amount of philanthropic grant funding they have received. The purpose was to find out if this model for replicating excellence was consistently effective. The answer, regrettably, was no.

But a new study we are releasing today finds that there is at least one place where better schools HAVE consistently scaled-up: Chile. Thanks to that nation’s public and private school choice program, chains of private schools have arisen, and they not only outperform the public schools, they also outperform the independent “mom-and-pop” private schools.

For anyone interested in replicating educational excellence, this study by a team of Chilean scholars is worth a look.

Is an Education Free Market Really ‘Totally Insane’

Matt Yglesias thinks my assertion that we would be better off economically if education money stayed with taxpayers rather than going to public schools and universities is “totally insane.” Ouch!

Now, I can actually understand this, because many people have difficulty envisioning things other than what they’ve always known. But have I really gone all Crazy Eddie? If government didn’t spend taxpayer dough on education, would the poor be much worse off than they are today? Can we never over-invest in schooling because education is just so important? Does the college wage premium mean we should never ratchet down subsidies for college education? And is it at least possible that spending more and more public dough doesn’t lead to more or better education – by which I mean actual, valuable learning – as much as more waste?

Unfortunately, it seems Ygelsias didn’t follow any of the links I provided in the post containing the line he objected to, which furnished some valuable data answering these important questions. And, by the way, it really was just one line he seemed to dislike – the point of the post was to argue against spending yet more taxpayer dough on an education-centered stimulus, not for complete separation of school and state. And, of course, tax-credit-based school choice leaves taxpayers in control of their money without eliminating support for education.

But let’s start answering our questions in more depth so that Mr. Yglesias and others can start to think outside of the “how we’ve always done it” box.

First, let’s hit one critical point: Spending taxpayer money on government schooling does not actually mean you get better education. Let’s look at that graphically:

Here you can see nearly four decades of precipitously increasing expenditures on K-12 education plotted against student performance. And what does it reveal? No correlation between the Death Valley of academic achievement and the Everest of spending. Ever-more taxpayer dollars have gone into the government education system, but the system hasn’t improved at all. Why? Because the educators receiving the money have no need to get better – they’ve gotten ever-more dough no matter what, in large part because many people simply assume that increased government spending on education equals better education. But if you spend hugely greater amounts and get no better results, that seems like it would be an economic drain, no? Which was exactly what I was arguing.

How about higher education?

On a per-pupil basis, over the last quarter-century spending on public colleges and universities has been steady overall, while aid per student at all schools has gone way up. And what do we have to show for that?

The first thing is  incredible tuition inflation – the bane of American higher education. On a per-pupil basis, since 1988 real aid per student has risen 144 percent, while prices have inflated 81 percent at four-year-private schools and 145 percent at four-year publics. It seems, at least in part, that colleges and universities raise their prices because, well, the aid makes sure they can.

Surely, though, the schools use that money to provide more people with ever-better educations? Maybe, but much of the new money seems to have gone just to hiring more administrators, freeing professors from teaching so they can conduct research, and erecting ever more fabulous amenities. Which brings us back to the economic point: Maybe taking money from taxpayers to subsidize all this empire-building and waste might be an economic loss because taxpayers would otherwise spend the money more wisely. Maybe they’d invest in companies that provide better, cheaper products; give money to charities; buy education from stripped-down – but more educationally effective –  schools; or use it for countless other things they need or want.

But what if all this subsidizing – even with its attendant waste – resulted in impressive educational outcomes? Then maybe, just maybe, it would be an economic net gain.  But things look pretty bad: The six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s degree seekers is just 57 percent; roughly one-third of first-year students need to take remedial courses; and literacy dropped (see p. 38) roughly ten percentage points for Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree between 1992 and 2003. Oh, and that wage premium? It could very well include massive credentialism: It might be that you now need a bachelor’s degree for jobs that require only skills or abilities you could have attained on the job or in relatively brief specialized training. But at this point even half-way decent prospective employees would be expected to have gone to a four-year college.

Enough conjecture, though. Let’s go to the videotape – an actual effort to isolate the effect of government higher-ed spending on economic growth. Economist Richard Vedder has done this, and what he has found is that the more a state spends on higher education, the lower its rate of economic growth. Why? Among other possible things, it seems that when education is largely funded by third parties – especially third parties who have no choice in the matter – it decreases schools’ and students’ motivation to act efficiently. So sure, build that on-campus water park – I ain’t really paying for it!

Looking at things this way – contemplating the myriad costs, not just the assumed benefits, of taxpayer funding of education – it seems maybe my ideas shouldn’t be assigned a cell between the Joker and the Riddler quite so quickly.

But what about the equalitarian argument? Forget about economic efficiency – what about justice for the poor?

First off, I’d note that freer, more efficient economic systems tend to be better for everyone, rich and poor alike. You can read all about that here. But we need look no further than American history to see that people – including the poor – will get educated without government help. Before there was widespread government schooling there was widespread education. Indeed, by 1840 – when Mann’s common-school movement was still in diapers – it is estimated that 90 percent of adult whites in America were literate, a very high level relative to Europe. And the nation was hardly the Monopoly Man at the time. In other words, poor people got educated on their own.

But how could this be? Certainly part of the answer was that many poor people emphasized education, and much education occurred in the home. It was also provided by religious institutions, as well as philanthropists. And, of course, poor communities sometimes got together to establish their own schools.

But that was then and this is now, right? Education is much more complex because the world is much more complex. How could poor people get an education today if government didn’t provide it?

Well, for one thing, education need not be nearly as complex and expensive as it is. All those computers and other bells and whistles? There is hardly overwhelming evidence that they do any good – they may just be a huge waste of money. Meanwhile, many relatively barebones private schools seem to do just as good a job or better at educating students. Oh, and there’s that charity thing again: Religious schools provide low-cost education to millions of kids, and it could be lower if they didn’t have to compete with “free” public schools. And despite massive government subsidies to higher ed, private philanthropists give tens-of-billions of dollars to colleges and universities every year – imagine how much they might give if government didn’t say it would do the job! In other words, there is absolutely no overwhelming argument – to say the least – that just because the world is  more complicated government must run schools and pay for education. Indeed, huge, bureaucratic, plodding government is about the least well-equipped entity to handle complication and fast change.

And guess what? There is a profit-motive to furnish education to poor students with demonstrated academic aptitude: If someone lends money to a poor student to go to college so she can get an education that enables her to increase her future earnings, both parties will end up profiting. And let’s not overlook India and numerous other developing countries, where many of the poorest people in the world, using their own money, attend for-profit schools that outperform the free public schools. And why is that? Because the parents whose valuable money is being spent have huge incentives to hold schools accountable, and schools have to respond to parents to stay in business.

But maybe all that’s not enough for Mr. Yglesias. Maybe he needs to also be reminded of what he himself noted:

The current state of schooling in America is already bad enough in terms of ill-serving poor people.

That’s for sure! Currently, wealthy people can choose schools: they do it by buying a house in a good district or paying for private schools. Meanwhile, poor parents are often trapped in awful schools because they can’t afford to buy a McMansion for tuition. In higher education, flagship public colleges and universities have disproportionately middle- and high-income student bodies. And student aid? With creation of tax credit programs you have to have sufficient taxable income to use, as well as loans like PLUS that have no income maximums, aid has been targeted higher and higher up income scales. Meanwhile, the tuition inflation that all that fuels appears likely to scare low-income people away from higher education more than any other group.

Finally, let’s not forget that it was government that for centuries prohibited millions of people – especially African-Americans – from receiving either an equal education, or any education at all.   Without question during those times many private Americans would have discriminated in the provision of education, but government required discrimination by both bigot and good man alike.

So the current education system — which tends to be bent toward the will of the large, voting, middle- and upper-income blocs – already massively underserves the poor, and quite possibly makes it much harder for low-income Americans to compete with rich people than if everyone paid for schooling themselves. The system also injects huge distortions and inefficiencies into education, hurting overall economic progress. Of course, this is not an open-and-shut case – few things are in public policy – but you sure need to do more than just call removing government from education “insane” to counter it. Unfortunately, that’s not something it seems too many people – including Mr. Yglesias – are prepared to do.

First to the “Top”

Congratulations Delaware and Tennessee – you’ve won the Race to the Top beauty contest! Of course, the grading was subjective and will be disputed by lots of states that haven’t won. Well, haven’t won yet – there’s a second round to this, remember.

So what do the victories for Delaware and Tennessee mean? The edu-pundits will no doubt be reading deep into the results over the coming days, trying to determine what they portend for the future of RttT, federal education policy generally, and politicians across the country.  And there are some juicy political leads worth following, including the possibility that the winning states were chosen because they have Republican congress members who could be pivotal in getting bipartisan support for the administration’s No Child Left Behind reauthorization plans.  

All of this, though, will ultimately miss by far the biggest point about RttT: The most beautiful promises and laws mean nothing unless they are implemented, and history offers little reason to believe that even the finest parts of the RttT winners’ applications will be brought to bear.

Despite over forty years of federal education interventions, and nearly two decades of state-level standards-and-accountability reforms, academic achievement has stagnated. Long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in mathematics and reading for our schools’ “final products” – high-school seniors – have been almost completely flat since the early 1970s, and fourth and eighth-grade “main NAEP” reading scores released just last week demonstrate the same awful trend since the early 1990s. This despite a 123-percent increase in real, per-pupil funding since 1970.  

Quite simply, no degree of legislative tinkering within the system has produced lasting improvements because those who would be held to high standards – teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats – have by far the most political clout in education, and they’ve hollowed out anything “tough” that’s been tried. The only thing that will move us powerfully forward – as extensive research on educational freedom demonstrates – is empowering parents to bypass education politics by freely choosing schools that have the autonomy needed to compete and innovate.

Unfortunately, that kind of reform wouldn’t gain a state so much as a point in the Race to the Top. And the limited choice – charter schools – that could get a state some points? According to the Center for Education Reform, Delaware only gets a B for its charter school law – a grade based generally on how free and competitive charter schools can be – while Tennessee gets an atrocious mark of D.

There’s nothing beautiful about that.

Diane Ravitch: Expert Historian, Policy Tyro

Diane Ravitch is a leading education historian. Her work in that field is characteristically thorough and well-researched, and her books The Troubled Crusade and The Great School Wars, in particular, made significant contributions to our understanding of U.S. education history.

On the presumption that Ravitch is as much an expert on policy as she is on history, her latest book, recounting her change of heart on certain policy questions, has garnered enormous media attention. I suggest, with all due respect, that this presumption is a mistake. Unlike her thorough and rigorous historical writing, Ravitch’s policy opinions were never grounded in a systematic and comprehensive review of the relevant evidence. They should never have been given credence in the first place.

Consider Ravitch’s 1995 book National Standards in American Education, which endorsed the policy. When I was reviewing evidence on education standards for a chapter in my 1999 book Market Education, Ravitch’s book was still the preeminent source on the subject. After her historical work, it was a disappointment. Quoting Ravitch (p. 25), I wrote the following:

The most common claim made in support of government curricula is that: “Standards can improve academic achievement by clearly defining what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected.” Unless readers are willing to accept this claim on faith, they can safely ignore it, because there is no compelling evidence that it is true. In her book National Standards in American Education, respected education historian and government standards advocate Diane Ravitch discusses many arguments pro and con, but does not demonstrate that government curriculum guidelines raise student achievement.

So far as I know, Ravitch never conducted a systematic review of the empirical evidence for national standards. Nor has she ever systematically and comprehensively reviewed the research comparing different kinds of public and private schools systems. She is not an authority on these matters.

If I’m mistaken on this point, I would appreciate a reference to any such works. If not, the media and policymakers would do well to stop according her opinions in these areas a weight they do not merit.

GAO: Dept. of Ed. Suffers Oversight Deficiencies

A report released today by the federal government’s non-partisan General Accounting Office finds deficits in the Department of Education’s financial and program oversight. According to the GAO, “These shortcomings can lead to weaknesses in program implementation that ultimately result in failure to effectively serve the students, parents, teachers, and administrators those programs were designed to help.”

The GAO’s findings are consistent with the longstanding pattern: for forty years, Americans have steadily increased spending on public schools without any resulting improvement in student performance by the end of high school (see the figures here and here).

The Obama administration has touted its $100 billion in education stimulus spending as a key to long term economic growth. What the data show, however, is that higher spending on public schools over the past two generations has not improved academic outcomes. And economists such as Stanford’s Eric Hanushek have shown that it is improved academic achievement, not higher public school spending, that accelerates economic growth.

So if the administration is serious in wanting education to boost the American economy, it must support reforms that are proven to significantly raise achievement, such as those that bring to bear real market freedoms and incentives – programs like the DC private school choice program that the administration has decided to kill despite its proven effectiveness.

Paul Krugman vs. The Daily Show

In a recent New York Times column (“The Uneducated American”), Paul Krugman writes that, “for the past 30 years our political scene has been dominated by the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars.” As a result, Krugman continues, U.S. education has been “neglected” and “has inevitably suffered.”

Readers who put their trust in Krugman might thus conclude that per pupil spending has stagnated or declined. In reality, as the chart below reveals, it has more than doubled since 1970, after adjusting for inflation.

Paul Krugman may not be an “uneducated American,” but he’s certainly a badly misinformed one.

andrew coulson cato education spending

Much more troubling is the fact that Krugman and the Times are spreading this misinformation on a grand scale. And that got me thinking about Jon Stewart. When Time magazine recently asked Americans to name their most trusted newscaster, the comic and Daily Show host won in a landslide.  Many pundits have taken this as a sign of the Apocalypse, worrying that so many Americans are getting their facts from a presumptively unreliable source. But is the Daily Show really less reliable than Paul Krugman and the New York Times?

To find out how they stack up on this particular question, I Googled the Daily Show’s website for any discussion of education spending. The most relevant hit was an exchange in the show’s on-line forum. In it, a commenter claims that spending per pupil has risen by a factor of 10 since 1945, after adjusting for inflation. That’s not too far off the mark. The actual multiple is just under 8. So folks who get their facts from the Daily Show’s website will be better informed on this subject than those who trust the Nobel Prize winning New York Times economist.

Not only is Krugman wrong to claim that public schools have been financially “neglected,” he is wrong to imagine that higher public school spending spurs economic growth – which is the central point of his column. Better academic achievement does help the economy – but, as the chart above illustrates and many scholarly studies have demonstrated, higher public school spending does not improve achievement. And by raising taxes without improving achievement, it may actually slow economic growth.

Media elites have been wringing their hands over the collapse in public demand for their products, over the two thirds of Americans who now doubt their credibility, and over the fact that more people now get their information from the Daily Show’s website than the New York Times’s.

Perhaps the media might attract more readers and rebuild trust if they were to stop publishing material less reliable than the blog discussions on a comedy show’s website. Just a thought.